Nick FriedelESPN Writer5 minute read
CLEVELAND — The New York Knicks are heading to the Eastern Conference Semifinals for the first time in 10 years after beating the Cleveland Cavaliers 106-95 Wednesday night in Game 5 of their first-round series.
As has been the case throughout the series, Knicks guard Jalen Brunson led the way for a hungry young team that had control of the game all night. Brunson scored 23 points to go with four assists and four rebounds and repeatedly made big plays when the Knicks needed it.
While the Knicks looked very professional in their celebration on Wednesday, Brunson said getting the franchise its first playoff win since 2013 was “special,” especially because his dad, Rick, played three of his eight NBA seasons for the Knicks.
“It’s a really cool experience to know that my dad played here – he was part of this team that made it to the final,” Brunson said, referring to the 1998-99 squad. “It’s special. The connection that me and my dad have, everything, the whole full circle, it’s really special.”
Brunson’s game continued to stand out against the Cavs. His teammates and coaches weren’t surprised that he was able to rise to the occasion.
“He’s a star player,” Knicks super sub Josh Hart said of Brunson, his former Villanova teammate. “He showed it last year in the playoffs. He showed that all season, and he continues to show it, continues to prove people wrong, and none of us in this locker room or in that front office or the coaching staff is surprised by the way He’s playing.”
Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau took the time to acknowledge the team’s progress but said they still had more to accomplish.
“I’ve said it many times, the tradition of the Knicks, what that means not just for the city but for the league, we have what I think are the best fans in the world, we have the best city in the world, we have the best arena in the world, and I think the way this team plays resonates with all of our fans,” he said. “They play hard, they play smart and they play together, and I think if you do that in New York, it’s always recognised. So that’s good.
“There’s still a lot of work to do. We have a lot of areas to improve, so we’re looking forward to the next challenge.”
With Brunson leading the charge, it was a well-balanced effort that propelled the Knicks on Wednesday. After shooting a combined 6 for 25 from the field in Games 1 and 2 in Cleveland, Knicks swingman RJ Barrett put on another great performance, scoring 21 points to provide much-needed lift.
As the series wore on, it became clear that the Knicks were not just a deeper team, but a group that played with the kind of defensive edge that defined some of the best teams in the career of Thibodeau.
Playing in his first playoff series, Hart has made a huge difference off the bench over the past week and a half, putting up a winning streak that has helped close out the games. Hart added 12 more rebounds in Game 5 and was a key cog in the Knicks, able to slow Donovan Mitchell and the Cavs’ offense.
Mitchell Robinson, who had 13 points and 18 rebounds in Game 5, was a force at the bottom against the Cavs. The Knicks edged the Cavs 48-30 on Wednesday and were the most physical team throughout the series.
“When he’s out there, he’s just relentless,” Brunson said of Robinson. “When he comes out there, he’s so passionate about rebounds – and his passion, trying to come in and block shots and be the anchor of defense, what he’s done this year has been everything. just amazing.”
Knicks forward Obi Toppin had 12 points and had several key streaks in the series. Knicks guard Immanuel Quickley added 17 points, rebounding from a very slow offensive start to the series.
The fact that the Knicks were able to close the series without All-Star forward Julius Randle made Wednesday’s win even more impressive. Randle injured his left ankle again late in the second quarter and did not return. After going a combined 21-for-65 for the series entering Game 5, Randle seemed to be finding his groove on Wednesday night after a slow start. He finished with 13 points, six assists and four rebounds in 16 minutes before his injury.
Thibodeau said Randle will be re-evaluated on Thursday. Randle was in the Knicks locker room icing his ankle after the win.
“It starts with holding each other accountable, from the coaching staff to the players,” Brunson said of the Knicks stepping in when a player gets injured. “I think we all trust each other, the most important thing, and we get to the point where we have situations like that and things don’t go to plan, and we find a way to resist and keep moving forward and d try not to miss a beat.”
Being able to close this series could be even more important for the Knicks, given the uncertainty surrounding Randle’s ankle.
The Knicks will face the winner of the Milwaukee Bucks-Miami Heat series. Heat star Jimmy Butler took Miami to a 3-1 lead heading into Wednesday night’s Game 5 against the top-seeded Bucks, but the Knicks wouldn’t have to play again until next week if the Bucks are able to come back behind the star striker. Giannis Antetokounpo.
A Heat-Knicks series would provide plenty of intrigue, reigniting a long-running rivalry. It would also create an interesting showdown between Thibodeau and Butler. Butler played for Thibodeau when he coached the Chicago Bulls and Minnesota Timberwolves.
No matter how the next series goes, the Knicks will enjoy playing at least two more games in front of a noisy environment inside Madison Square Garden. The two sold-out crowds made a big difference in Games 3 and 4 against the Cavs as the Knicks fed off the energy in the building and were able to get away from a young Cavs team that didn’t have never looked ready for the playoff stage.
Even Brunson knows gruff Thibodeau appreciates being able to deliver the Knicks at this stage of the playoffs.
“I think it means a lot, something we can look forward to in the short term,” Brunson said. “I don’t know if he’ll show it in the short term, but we’re playing more basketball, and every time we do it gives us another opportunity to improve and move forward and keep seeing where we can. go. “